A Conversation with Lav Diaz
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
AT: How much footage have you shot for the American scenes of Ebolusyon?(Is Ebolusyon ni Rey Gallardo still the title?). And when would you like to finish the work?
LD: I canít remember how much footage. Iíll dig [up] the archive. Some are in Manila and some are in Virginia. In my estimate, thereís about three to five hoursí worth of film there when cut. Havenít worked on the title yet but Iíve decided to make a silent film out of it, or maybe an experiment on silent and talkie. I will be shooting some more scenes. I need to review the footage. I have some video transfers of the early shoots, around Ď94 to Ď96. The different shots of the faces of the Pinoy war vet ghost (Behn Cervantes) and the pitiful jump-shipper (Ronald Bregendahl) and the dead actor Mike Fernandez are haunting in black and white. The shots of the 90s East Village is haunting as well, really haunting and eerie at times, especially those with the Twin Towers as backdrop. Just walked around the East Village the other day, September 4, a Sunday. Some old buildings in my former neighborhood, the Bowery area (from Houston Street to 14th Street), are gone--appraised as Ďcondemned buildingsí by the city government so they had to go. The great old East Village landscape is changing. Sad, man. CBGB is under siege, too; there was a long line for that dayís performances when I passed by. Albeit protesters include Steve Van Zandt, Patti Smith, and a roster of whoís who in the NY rock/punk scene, the greatest rock Ďn roll church will go. Dura lex sed lex. The law may be hard but it is the law, so CBGB must go. The only thing that they could do now is to look for a new venue. And I hear the latest development is that Mayor Bloomberg is offering some help for the transfer. Iím sad and angry. Long live CBGB! I lived just a minute away for three years, underground and on top of a building with no elevator.
Iíll start working on the cut middle of next year. But again, I wonít have or I canít pinpoint an exact date of finishing it. I am really compelled now to add more scenes to make it a fulfilled work.
AT: Ebolusyon ni Ray Gallardo was not originally intended to be silent when you began. Why silent? How will you adjust it to make it silentóuse of title cards?
LD: The maze of footage as a result of the long gaps [between the] shoots created sort of a puzzle and labyrinthine hieroglyphics thatís really hard to decipher. I tried and tried to decode it, but to no avail. What to do, man? Make it silent. Do the easy fix. Thatís a joke. Silent film is no easy fix. Itís a great art. I am a great fan of that art. Lest we forget, cinema started silent. And during the advent of sound, there was monumental resentment amongst so-called purists then. This is akin to the advent of digital. Some people called themselves purists and they declared their fidelity with celluloid. But now they own [the] latest and [most] advanced digital camcorders. Like I told you, when I decided to exclude all the US scenes from the final cut of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino--these are the footage shots from í94 to í98--I was fully aware that thereís three-hoursí or five-hoursí worth of film there. Yes, Iíve been mulling over the idea of making it silent since [the] middle of last year, been telling people every time they asked about the US scenes. And it has actually gained mythical status because of these talks: the other Ebolusyon becoming this very long silent film. The issue remains hypothetical though. But thereís [really] a greater chance of doing it silent after the viewings that I did with the old footage.
AT: Tell me about your two short films, Step No, Step Yes, and Banlaw.
LD: Banlaw was some sort of a thesis work for the Mowelfund workshop that I attended in 1985. Shot on super 8, three minutes running time. Itís the story of an idealist; again, a Socratic being. Looking back now, I realized that it was my first Socratic character. The protagonist was a young man who views the world with absolute goodness but also with a heavy pessimism. He believes that the world is going terribly malevolent and retrogressive. He watches television and he sees a Buddhist burning himself as an ultimate act of sacrifice to save mankind. He is well-aware that everyday his activist friends are going underground and some have been tortured and killed by the Marcos regime. He walks the streets of Manila and he sees hungry people, thousands of lost street kids, beggars. Inspired by the young Buddhist, he walks naked in protest and then kills himself. I love the rain effect that we did. I stole a shot from Kubrickís Dr. Strangelove. Time to ask forgiveness from Mowelfund: I stole the only copy [of Banlaw] before I left for the US in 1992. My act wasnít deliberate though. I visited Mowelfund and I saw our works scattered on this long table. I mean, the films were scattered there--16s, super 8s, video tapes--and you know Mowelfund then, the doors were open twenty-four hours, and people were coming in and out, stoned, drunk, gaudy, haughty, hungry, horny and totally fucked up, or fucking each other, and spaced out. I saw Banlaw lying on the edge. It was actually on the edge of the table in its utter blackness and smallness, and a slight push would push it to oblivion. I was scared; I might as well get hold of it; I reckoned I would return it in better times. I grabbed it and slipped it in my bag. When I got to New York, it helped me connect with the struggling independents in the East Village; I have this badge, [this] little crude film to show them. It even saved me from going hungry; weíd do underground showings of shorts, in basements literally, and ask for donations. I kept transferring. I lost it in the process, in one of the basements in Jersey City, I believe.
Step No, Step Yes was a video work. The year was 1988. Mowelfund had just acquired video equipments and Larry Manda was in charge then of taking care of those equipments. We were excited with this new medium, not as expensive as 16 and super 8; we decided to shoot. I wrote a script with the writer Rey Arcilla. We shot three weekends in the squattersí area in Pasay City called Leveriza, a very dangerous place then. On the last day of our shoot, a man was killed over an argument of his supposed nonpayment of a two-peso turon  he ate. Bloody and scary, but we finished the shoot. Itís the story of a whore and a peeping tom. I would say it was a very fulfilling exercise for us. I directed the work but I credited Larry and Rey as co-directors. A copy is still in Mowelfund; I havenít seen it since. Well, when the Mowelfund guys did some interviews of us alumni, they ran it as a background visual when they were [interviewing] me.
AT: Tell me about your unfinished workóSarungbanggi ni Alice.
LD: This will be the longest shoot of my life. Could be, I donít know. Honestly, Iím not even sure now if Iíll be able to or how Iíll be able to find a sort of a culmination to the process. Itís a documentary and I started shooting in 1993; a three-hour, work-in-progress-cut opened the First Filipino-Arts Festival of San Francisco in 1994. The subject of this work is a Filipina book vendor in Greenwich Village. Sheís been selling books in the streets of New York for three decades. A Filipina selling books in the streets of New York for three decades, man! I thought her story belongs to the pantheon of classic and quintessential Filipina struggles. Her name is Alice Morin. Sheís from Masbate. I met her when I was working with the Filipino weekly paper The Filipino Express. Hers is a very unique struggle. I was shocked to learn that a Filipina is in the streets of New York everyday, winter, spring, summer and fall; oftentimes sheís the only woman amongst a majority of black vendors. She has three children with her many relationships with black men. I started shooting her immediately after her story came out as a feature in our paper. Iím still shooting her every time Iím in New York. In 2004, when I visited her in her regular spot along 6th Avenue and 8th Street, she was gone. She transferred to Virginia Beach according to her friends. I have made plans to look for her in Virginia but I havenít been able to do it. Time and money issues again.
AT: What have you learned about her thus far? How did she first arrive in NY?
LD: She lives in Virgina Beach now according to the street book vendors of Manhattan. Iíll go look for her after Heremias. I did try to make contact through the mobile number they gave me but the number is not working anymore. Alice Morinís life is the quintessential Filipino struggle, an epic of a struggle. Unbelievable. Her struggle is really sad and harrowing, but she is such a fighter; I know sheíll never succumb to lifeís follies. She came to America via a Green Card when she a married a US soldier who was stationed in Olongapo City where the American base was before.
AT: Tell me about your unfinished work, Malamig ang Mundo (ďThe World is ColdĒ).
LD: Malamig ang Mundo was an exercise film, shot two weekends on betacam in Alexandria, Virginia; autumn of 1995. Admittedly, the exercise was really meant more for self-exorcizing. Though I had just nailed down the co-production agreement with Paul Tanedo for Ebolusyon and we had actually shot some scenes already, I had had recurring anxiety attacks every time I thought of the road ahead: I knew then that Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino was going to be a long, long trek of filmmaking. And so, for some release during the long breaks, I offered the story of Malamig to Rommel Simon, the Filipino who lent me his postproduction studio in Alexandria, Virginia where I did the video presentation cut of Ebolusyon. I told him of my plan: to shoot a sort of an exercise film; weíll shoot in two weekends, cut it fast, and then use it as presentation material to raise funds and eventually shoot it on 35 millimeter. Man, it was a very fulfilling exercise. There were a lot of limitations like we worked on a two thousand dollar budget with the involvement of an inexperienced crew and lot of non-actors; I just gathered them at random, people who were available and made a fast and easy workshop on production. My greatest failure in that work was that I havenít fulfilled my promise and responsibility yet--that of finding the fund for its eventual 35mm shoot. Itís been ten years. Malamig is a Filipino story set in the heartland of America; the premise revolved around the seasons of cold (winter, spring and autumn) in America--the alienation, solitude and loneliness, and even anger, it bestows on aliens like Filipinos. A Filipina whoís long been married to a white man but is unable to have a child finally decides to get her long-suffering mother from the Philippines. But once the mother arrives, memories of brutalities she experienced from her childhood returns to the woman. She becomes very vengeful and cruel to her mother. But more than the very physical attributes that the story shows like natureís coldness and the womanís beatings of her mother, the underlying theme was the pathos and cruelty of poverty, of course; again, the quintessential Filipino struggle Ďoutsideí of the motherland, how do we deal with estrangements, detachments, with the past.
AT: The premise of Malamig ang Mundo is fascinating. What is the current running time of the work? How complete is the story as is? Would you continue it on DV or restart completely on film? Do you intend to shoot with the same cast? Are you still in touch with them?
LD: I canít remember the length now, but itís more than two hours. I wrote a full script; some people still have copies of it, Iím sure, the actors and the then de facto crew. I found a beta copy in our old house in Paranaque, sent it to Olaf Moller. Torino fest learned of it and got hold of the copy during the fest and they decided to make a surprise viewing but unfortunately, when they reviewed the tape, it snapped. I donít have any plans right now. I will think about it after Heremias. Iím not in touch with the people who worked and acted in that film for the last ten years. Yes, Malamig ang Mundo is full of promise.
ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang pilipino